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Cuomo's transparency website fails to live up to promises

Posted by Marie Cusick on

Four months ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo launched a new website called CitizenConnects. He hailed the site as an "electronic town hall" that would give New Yorkers, "unprecedented access to the workings of the executive branch."

So has CitizenConnects delivered? Not really.

The tagline for the site reads, "Care enough to connect to your state government."

Unfortunately, no one at the governor's press office cared enough to return several phone calls requesting details about why some information on the site is either missing or out-of-date.

7 things the site was supposed to do:

Back in September 2011, a press release spelled out a bulleted list of things people would be able to do on CitizenConnects including:

  • Participate in online town halls where New Yorkers can submit questions directly to government officials
  • Learn about and sign up to participate in upcoming state government events
  • Follow the travel of the governor, lieutenant governor, and top officials and commissioners
  • Submit ideas and policy questions to the governor
  • Follow the executive branch with enhanced access on Facebook and Twitter
  • Sign up to receive e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter updates
  • Access the governor’s daily and future schedules

1. Online town halls

Let's start at the top of that list and take a look at the "online town halls." As promised, the site hosts regular live chats with top officials from various state agencies.

However, there doesn't appear to be a schedule of when the chats will occur on the CitizenConnects site. Instead, the dates and times are announced via Facebook or Twitter.

So if you happen to miss the live chats you can read the transcripts, although one of them is missing.

At the most recent chat with officials from the Division of the Budget office, Innovation Trail editor Rachel Ward, reporter Ryan Delaney, and I asked a total of four budget-related questions during the second half of the hour-long chat.

After submitting a question, the site relays this message:

Your comment has been queued for review by site administrators and will be published after approval.

Really? Will it be published?

None of our questions were answered.

The questions from the public are clearly moderated and many read like the governor's talking points.

Here is an example from 1/20/12:

11:51am Question from Sara in Binghamton:

How does Governor Cuomo's budget help ensure that New York's environment remains clean and beautiful?

 
 

11:52am Division of Budget said:

The Executive Budget continues to support critical environmental programs including the Environmental Protection Fund, which will be maintained at $134 million. In addition, the Budget includes $102 million for the Department of Environmental Conservation to advance flood control, coastal erosion and critical dam safety projects. $94 million is provided for capital rehabilitation and improvement needs in 48 State parks and historic sites and the ski facilities operated by the Olympic Regional Development Authority.

However, visitors to the governor's official Facebook page (a web platform his administration has less control over) won't find as many polite, well-punctuated questions.

And whoever manages the Facebook page rarely (if ever) replies to comments, whether they're friendly or not.

This pair of comments garnered a few "likes" after it was posted on 1/19/12:

Paul Morgan how much did you $ell your frackin' soul to the energy industry for?

Paul Morgan thanks for making it possible for my same sex partner and i to be married before we get our environmental cancers!

2. Government events

The bulleted list also promises that the public can use CitizenConnects to learn about and sign up to participate in upcoming government events.

The site actually does an OK job of this.

The homepage has a schedule of several hundred of events around the state. Many of them are public meetings, but you also have to sift through a lot of "family events," and other things that aren't really related to the workings of government, like this event hosted by the Department of Environmental Conservation:

Are there real dragons? Do any reptiles or amphibians share common characteristics with dragons? Find out and celebrate the Year of the Dragon at 5 Rivers! Children must be accompanied by an adult. Registration required

3. Following the travel of top officials

The site is also supposed to follow the travel of the governor, lieutenant governor, and other top officials. CitizenConnects delivers on this too, but only if you're into history.

The homepage has a jumbled map, labeled "See where we've been!" filled with pasttravel destinations of the governor and his top officials (some are over a year old).

ion Map

So this might be helpful if you want to know what Lt. Governor Bob Duffy was doing several months ago.

4. Submitting ideas and policy questions

Another promise is that citizens can submit ideas and policy questions to the governor.

There is a form that you can fill out on the CitizenConnects homepage, so the site delivers on that, but how often does the governor or anyone in his administration read the comments and respond to them?

I'm not expecting an answer to a question I submitted about his economic development plan for the city of Buffalo.

However, I did get an email within a few minutes, thanking me for my "invaluable" input:

Your input is invaluable to our mission to create a government that works for its people, and I appreciate you taking the time to reach out to me.

I want to assure you that your e-mail has been received and that it will be read and shared with the appropriate members of my staff.
 

5. Social media

Cuomo has approximately 18,000 followers on Facebook and on Twitter.

Both sites do provide updates about what he's doing, but as noted above, his official Facebook page is filled with unanswered comments and questions from the public, and his Twitter page rarely re-tweets messages from others.

6. Email updates

As for the email updates, you can sign up for these, and choose which categories of state topics you're interested in hearing about. 

I selected everything related to the Innovation Trail beat, but the website stopped me before I could finish - users are limited to to just 20 items (out of 70 possible choices).

I signed up for the email updates nearly two weeks ago and have yet to receive any (except one to confirm my email address).

7. Access to the governor's schedules

Finally, CitizenConnects promised to give people access to the governor's daily and future schedules, but the information is often so vague, it's useless.

Each day, the site reveals which city the governor happens to be in and rarely gives more details. For example on Friday, January 20th 2012 the calendar reads, "Governor Andrew M. Cuomo is in New York City."

The following day, his schedule becomes even vaguer, if that's possible: "Governor Andrew M. Cuomo is in the New York City area."

I wonder if he perhaps veered into Connecticut or New Jersey?

There are no future schedules on the site, and the past public schedules are five months out of date. The most recent one is from August 2011 (a month before CitizenConnects was launched).

This isn't the first time Cuomo's administration has been less than forthcoming with details about his past activities. Last summer, when reporters asked for records of his past use of the State Police aircraft the documents came back heavily redacted.

Getting up to date

Some good government advocates who initially praised the site, say CitizenConnects is still, "a work in progress."

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, notes that the site is particularly lacking when it comes to details about the governor's schedule.

"It's not the most user-friendly site," he says. "I see it as an unfinished product that needs to continue to evolve to be the online tool it was promised to be."

Russ Haven, executive director of the New York State Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), says the governor's staff needs to pay more attention to the site.

"It doesn't open a huge window on what's going on," says Haven. "They're going to have to work to get more content out for it to live up to its promise."

Cuomo was quoted in the CitizenConnects press release advocating for change, "Traditional forms of communication and information have given way to electronics. It's time government gets up to date."

Noted.

Now could you please update your website?

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